Martin Scorsese’s Best Marriage of Film and Music Is Showcased in ‘Goodfellas’

Gangster flick Goodfellas (1990) is one of famed director Martin Scorseses’ best efforts and is considered by many to be one of the great films of all time. Ray Liotta, Robert Deniro and others have acclaimed roles, while Joe Pesci nearly steals the entire film in one scene alone, with his hilarious-but-scary-as-hell, “What do you mean I’m funny?” riff with Liotta. Perhaps the next most memorable parts of the film involve Scorsese’s use of rock music, including Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla (Piano exit),” and the frenetic mélange of hard rock that accompanies the film’s wild, jump-cut climax.

Scorsese has a gift for marrying music, and especially rock, with film. After all, his documentaries of The Band’s final concert, The Last Waltz, a Rolling Stones’ tour, Shine a Light, and George Harrison, Living in a Material World, are almost as highly-regarded as the rest of his works. In Goodfellas, Scorsese masterfully uses music to set time and place, to pull in historical context, to ratchet up both tension and excitement, and even to inject some humor. Especially, though, Scorsese uses music to capture what’s going on under the surface of these guys depending on, and often despite, their onscreen actions and bravado.

Goodfellas is an adaptation of a book by Nicholas Pileggi telling the true story of mobster-turned-informant, Henry Hill (portrayed, as an adult, by Liotta). Pileggei and Scorsese, who collaborated on the screenplay, were both drawn to the gritty, day-to-day details of not the top guy in the mob, but of a soldier in the trenches. The story begins in the mid-’50s with a 12-year-old Hill acting as an apprentice of sorts at a mobster clubhouse in Brooklyn. Scorsese then tracks Hill’s rise through the mafioso ranks through the ’60s and early7’0s, culminating with the big money—and big prison term—cocaine trafficking years of the late-70s. In fact, for Goodfellas, Scorsese only used songs actually released at the time the movie was portraying. (Thompson and Christie, 1996).

Hollywood, and America in general, have had a love affair of sorts with the mob since the ’30s, with classics films like Public Enemy (1931), Little Caeser (1931), and Scarface (1932), and on through Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy of the ’70s. The allure is not hard to see: tough guys wielding devastating power, often doing so beyond the law (often due to bribes), flashing fat wads of cash, wearing flashy clothes, and having pretty girls on their arms. So compelling was organized crime life on the silver screen that real-life mobsters have actually taken cues on how to act and live from Hollywood, most notably from The Godfather. (Stanley, 1992).

That mob persona is further intertwined with a rich Italian American tradition, dating back to rural, southern Italy, as well. The mobster is often seen as a strong patriarch of large, close families, regularly united at family gatherings, and with amazing and ever-present Italian comfort food—recipes no doubt passed down for generations. Mobsters were seen as good Catholic, family men—which often really just meant keeping their mistresses out of sight—and they were great providers. When these Italian immigrants first arrived in America, many lived in the toughest and poorest of neighborhoods and had no political or economic power. A certain segment then not only held on to the culture that bonded them, but gravitated toward crime, as well.

What was so wrong with these “goodfellas” organizing themselves and administering some of their own tough justice–with “honor,” of course? As Liotta’s Hill puts it at the beginning of the film, he wanted to be a “somebody in a neighborhood of nobodies.”

To Hill and his buddies, mobsters had the best of everything and outsized personalities to mathc, not unlike like the biggest Italian American idol, and reputed mob pal, Frank Sinatra. On that note, Goodfellas opens, musically, with Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches.” Bennett is another major Italian American star who began his career in the pre-rock era of the early ’50s, a time when Italian American crooners like Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bobby Darin and Bobby Vinton, were the epitome of jazz/pop cool. Each has songs in Goodfellas, mostly in the first half of the film. Hill and his associates were hard drinking, men’s-men, and the kings of swanky nightclubs like the Copacabana in New York, the club depicted in the film.

Scorsese shows the young Hill’s induction into mob ways and mob codes such as in one scene, for example, when young Henry learns that if you are bleeding to death, do not go to a mob-owned business because you will attract police. Scorsese intersperses classic Italian opera, and the post-war tenor, Giuseppe Di Stefano, in particular, throughout those scenes, also mostly in the first half of the film. This proud and timeless music harkens back to the honor and tradition of a glamorized Old World. Everything these guys do is illegal, but somehow it still all feels somewhat noble. Sort of, anyway. Who doesn’t want to feel like they are part of a large, powerful, tight-knit clan that looks out for each other, and whose traditions have been passed on for ages?

Musically, Scorsese represents Hill’s early career with the relatively innocent, late ’50s/early ’60s, doo wop of the street corners, and groups like the Cleftones with “Can’t We Be Sweethearts,” the Moonglows, and the Cadillacs. The young mob wives and girlfriends, as Hill’s bride-to-be (Lorraine Bracco) says, “wear too much make-up,” shop all day, and sit around talking about beating their kids, all to the backdrop of the dramatic, but sweet, girl group sounds of the same time, such as The Crystals and “Then He Kissed Me,” the Chantelles, The Ronettes, and the tougher, but still sweet, Shangri-La’s, with “Leader of the Pack.”

These relationships and family values do not hold up, however. These goodfellas were smooth alright, in an old-fashioned, Mad Men-misogynist kind of way, but worse. Lyrics from Jack Jones’ “Wives and Lovers,” also used in the film, sum it up:

Day after day

There are girls at the office

And men will always be men

Don’t send him off with your hair still in curlers

You may not see him again

In other words: I love you more than anything, honey, but I might be having sex with the secretary tonight if she’s looking good.

In the few scenes in which Scorsese does not use music, the silence serves to heighten tensions by removing any cues as to what is really going on with these guys. Sometimes the quiet highlights absurd contrasts, such as Hill and his vicious buddies playfully joking with one of their sweet, elderly mothers, while a former foe lay dying in the trunk of their car. Other times, Scorsese uses the lack of music to underscore the randomness of the violence, such as when one of the mobsters seems to be teetering either between just joking around or exploding in the worst kinds of violence, such as with the Pesci character, Tommy Devito’s, famous riff with Hill, or when Devito’s “playing around” suddenly and completely unexpectedly ends with his killing of an innocent kid. That threat underlies everything in these guys’ lives.

When things first start to go really awry is in the mid-’60s when DeVito flies off the handle and brutally kills a “made” man without permission — an inexcusable mistake under the mob code. Here, instead of East Coast doo wop, Scorsese inserts the first signs of the British Invasion and a new psychedelic-era with folk/psych star Donovan’s trippy “Atlantis.” The dreams of the Old Country and simple street justice are definitely over and here things officially get weird.

A few scenes later, the underlying and uncontrollably violent nature of the main characters continues to spill out. What should be scenes of the mobsters enjoying the fruits of a Big Score is instead DeNiro’s character, Jimmy “The Gent” Conway, finally being swallowed up by greed, fear and murderous rage. As Hill narrates, over a montage of grisly images, the police begin “finding bodies all over.” As these ended lives are discovered, the second half of the rock classic, “Layla”–“Layla (Piano Outro),” by the Eric Clapton-led Derek and the Dominoes, sets the mood. The first movement of “Layla” (not used in the film) is a Clapton-penned, fast-tempoed, blues-rock tale of unrequited love. The second movement was written by pianist Jim Gordon, with guitar-hero Duane Allman playing the melody from the first half of the song and adding a distinctive and soaring, “bird-call” effect. Where the first part of “Layla” is anguished but cathartic, the second portion provides a moving and graceful closure, bittersweet that it is.

Shortly after “Layla” is introduced, Scorsese exposes Hill’s cocaine problem to the music of the Rolling Stones’ hedonistic/nihilistic meltdown, “Gimme Shelter” (1969). It is a famously apocalyptic song featuring the harrowing but soulful vocal performance from Merry Clayton: “Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away…”

This is followed by the celebrated, climactic scene of the nearly seven-minute, car-helicopter chase sequence. Hill is, at that point, badly strung out, relying on incompetents, and trying to manage way too much as he runs about balancing gun running deals, drug running, his own addiction, a mistress, and all while being chased by the feds in a helicopter—unless that last part is just a paranoid delusion, Hill isn’t actually sure. Watching the frazzled Hill try to keep this circus afloat, and with everything at stake, is enough to put a knot in any viewer’s stomach. The musical choices perfectly complement a dizzying and completely gripping sequence.

Here, Scorsese matches six different pieces of music, two used twice, to the disorienting jump cuts. It all works because Henry Hill’s life is equally jumbled and disjointed and, in the end, each track feels exactly right. There is a Mick Jagger solo track and a Cream song, plus a quick snippet of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy,” while Hill snorts a line. Along with swirling confusion, there are other layers of emotions and even some humor: in the middle of all of the above, Hill is calling his brother at home to make sure his tomato sauce is being stirred.

Scorsese conveys some of the crazed exhilaration with George Harrison’s classic fuzz-guitar, power pop track, “What is Life?” Otherwise, the wheels on The Who’s “Magic Bus” are coming off and Harry Nillson’s “Jump into the Fire” serves as another perfect fit as Hill literally races for his life. The Stones’ ode to primitive lifestyles, “Monkey Man,” is from the same album as “Gimme Shelter,” Let it Bleed, and carries with it the same frantic desperation/excitement. Finally, almost mercifully, the music stops, and Hill is surrounded in his driveway by a group of feds with guns drawn.

Scorsese has said that he wanted to capture Hill’s life as if it was about to “spin off the edge and fly out,” because it was. (Derek, 1990) An implosion seems to describe the end, as well. Hill’s dream of the good life was, at its core, pretty rotten; a mirage, even. Scorsese has also noted in an interview that the one scene where Hill is treated as a VIP at the Copa is the only time Hill really enjoys any fruits of his lifestyle. (Ebert, 2008). The rest is all a crazed chase.

Hill’s supposedly loyal buddies, Conway and Devito, were true psychopaths; Hill himself was just a little less so. Hill’s drug addiction prevented him from keeping his word to the top boss. His family life was a mess to say the least, with a coke-addled mistress and a relationship with his wife best embodied in a scene in which at different points each has a gun in the other’s face. The Hill children are traumatized.

By the end, it is time to forget great Italian opera, Tony Bennett and even the “Chairman of the Board,” himself, Frank Sinatra. The next music to be heard starts at the final cut to black and the beginning of the closing credits. The singer is the Sex Pistols’ bassist and noted degenerate Sid Vicious, backed by an orchestra, as he sarcastically decimates Sinatra’s anthem, “My Way.” Vicious warbles and butchers the classic lines:

And now the end is near

And so I face the final curtain you cunt, I’m not a queer

I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain

I’ve lived a life that’s full and each and every highway

And that, much more than this I did it my way

Generally, songs used in movies are not so blunt, as they usually serve to enhance the onscreen action and not overwhelm or otherwise be too literal. This performance of “My Way” is an exception of sorts. The song was recorded just months before the heroin-addicted Vicious may well have murdered his girlfriend, Nancy Spungeon, before his own suicide attempt, and before his fatal overdose in February of 1979 before he could stand trial, and it sounds like it. Vicious had no respect for any traditions and whatever dreams he had were long gone by the end. Hill’s dream had similarly collapsed. For Scorsese to make such a direct and spot-on connection between the Mafioso life and the contemporaneous but seemingly completely disparate punk rock scene of the late-70s is bold and fairly brilliant. Scorsese could scarcely have selected a more perfect song.

The second and final song to play during the closing credits is the “Layla (Piano Outro),” again. After a nerve-wracking, stupid, violent, and at times awfully funny thrill ride, that song mercifully brings an end and much needed relief for everyone involved. For Hill, it could have been worse; for the viewer, perhaps: “Thank God that’s not my life.”



* Ebert, Roger (2008). Scorsese by Ebert, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

* Malcolm, Derek (September/October 1990). “Made Men.” Film Comment.

* Stanley, Alessandra. “Real-Life Tough Guys and Silver-Screen Gangsters.” The New York Times, 21 Feb. 1992. 03 Apr. 2008.

* Thompson, David; Ian Christie (1996). “Scorsese on Scorsese.” Faber and Faber. pp. 150–161.

Original Soundtrack: Goodfellas

No. Song / Performer / Composer / Time

1. Rags to Riches – Tony Bennett / Adler, Ross / 2:51

2. Sincerely / The Moonglows / Freed, Fuqua / 3:08

3. Speedoo / The Cadillacs / Navarro / 2:24

4. Stardust / Billy Ward / Carmichael, Parish / 3:14

5. Look in My Eyes / The Chantels / Barrett, Barrett / 2:20

6. Life Is But a Dream / The Harptones Cita, Weiss / 2:43

7. Remember (Walking in the Sand) / The Shangri-Las / Morton – 2:18

8. Baby I Love You / Aretha Franklin / Shannon / 2:38

9. Beyond the Sea / Bobby Darin / Lawrence, Trénet / 2:55

10. Sunshine of Your Love / Cream / Brown, Bruce, Clapton / 4:13

11. Mannish Boy / Muddy Waters / Diddley, London, Waters / 5:24

12. Layla / Derek & the Dominos / Clapton, Gordon / 3:53